WASHINGTON — Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have emerged as leaders of a bipartisan coalition to support President Barack Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, which would allow more U.S. agricultural exports to be sold to the island nation.

Cramer and Klobuchar spoke at a Jan. 8 press conference with other members of Congress and farm group leaders, announcing the establishment of a private sector of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition to back normalization.

Cramer said he thinks he had been invited because, while other Republicans initially expressed opposition to Obama’s announcement he said, “It doesn’t sound dumb to me.”

He said, “What motivates me to come out so early” on Cuba is not just the sales of North Dakota peas, lentils, beans, durum and potatoes, but “the opportunity to influence an oppressed country.”

Cramer noted there are risks to establishing trade relations with Cuba, which used to be a large sugar exporter to the U.S.

“North Dakota also grows sugar beets,” Cramer noted. “We are very sensitive to the importance of fair, free trade.”

Klobuchar, who has sponsored a Cuba trade bill, said Minnesota’s unemployment rate of only 3.1 percent is in large part because of agricultural exports.

Cuba is not a partisan issue, Klobuchar said, and the Senate should not block the confirmation of an American ambassador to Cuba.

Cramer and Klobuchar spoke after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who noted the changes President Obama has promised to banking rules that require exporters to go through third-country banks and Cuba to make payments before the goods leave the U.S. “will make our products more price-competitive.”

The news conference, held at the National Press Club, attracted more agricultural lobbyists and a wider range of reporters than any other agricultural event in recent memory, including most farm bill news conferences.

Repealing laws

The lobbyists thanked Obama for announcing on Dec. 17 that he intends to ease banking regulations on agricultural sales to Cuba and re-establish diplomatic relations, but they also made clear their ultimate goal is to repeal the laws that restrict trade between Cuba and the U.S.

The coalition will actively engage “to end the embargo,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the chair of USACC and a vice president of Cargill.

The U.S. should also import “what Cuba produces well,” added Paul Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Cuba Working Group and president of Chicago Foods International LLC.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said he thinks agricultural and banking interests must lead the charge on Capitol Hill for changes to the Cuba policy.

“The politics will be motivated by the agriculture interest,” Farr said. “Business people are going to have to use their political voices.”

Neither the government nor private sector leaders offered much new information on the issues surrounding Cuba, but their presence together and their determination signaled there is a lot of support in the agriculture community for Obama’s actions, and that members of Congress who oppose normalization of relations with Cuba will face opposition in rural America.

He also noted that 50 years have passed since Soviet Union leader Nikita Kruschev visited Iowa and saw “the extraordinary power of American agriculture.”

Vilsack said exposure to U.S. food products will lead Cubans to ask questions about why their system is not more productive.

Ignoring customers

Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who traveled to Washington for the event, said, “When it comes to Cuba, we are not on a level playing field. We cannot ignore 11 million customers, 90 miles from our country.”

Nixon said support for normalizing relations with Cuba is not only bipartisan in Congress, but “extremely bipartisan” among the nation’s governors.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., noted when he was in the House he was one of the sponsors of the amendment in 2000 that allowed the export of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.

When Cubans don’t buy American food, he said, “it is not that the Cubans are not getting agricultural goods. They are getting them from someone else.”

Cargill Americas President Grant Kadavy said the U.S. competitively sells corn to Mexico, but not to Cuba. Cargill has built more than 70 schools in Vietnam, he said, but has not had the opportunity in Cuba.

Several speakers also said Cubans should be able to buy on credit, even though John Kavulich, the senior policy director of the U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council, has noted Cuba has not always paid other countries on time for its purchases.

U.S. Wheat Associates President Alan Tracy said the decision to offer credit would be up to the individual companies, but they should have the ability to extend it if they wish. He said the most important issues are “the hoops” through which Cuba has to go to buy American farm products.

“These are some of the things we’d like to see fixed,” Tracy said. “We don’t expect to have our full trade relationship restored over night.”